Berliner Addresses Hot Button Issues In Bethesda Forum

Bethesda County Councilman Roger Berliner (D) told residents he’s undecided on Chevy Chase Lake development, he’ll pursue whatever option necessary to ensure land for a new elementary school in White Flint and he’s pessimistic about preventing Pepco from approval for a significant rate hike later this year.

In a hour-and-a-half town hall-style meeting on Wednesday in Bethesda, Berliner also discussed two pieces of tree protection legislation before the Council, the county’s zoning ordinance rewrite and hinted at taking on County Executive Isiah Leggett’s recommendation to delay funding for the Bethesda Metro South Entrance.

The first and most substantial discussion focused on the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, which last week was sent to the County Council for final review. The Council will hold its public hearing on the Plan on March 5. It would allow for significant mixed-use development around a prospective Purple Line light rail station on Connecticut Avenue.

All those who spoke about the plan were residents against the height and density recommendations of the Planning Board, which in some cases approved taller buildings than recommended by Planning Department Staff.

“They wholesale ignored and threw out Staff density recommendations,” said one resident who attended the Planning Board worksession in question. “It’s particularly insulting for the community members who were basically ignored. …Quite frankly, it’s a little suspicious.”

Berliner said he will be briefed on the Planning Board’s proposals in the next few weeks and that he’s made no decision on the height and density issues that have drawn disapproval from a significant number of residents up and down the Connecticut Avenue corridor.

Berliner did indicate he’d rather see the transit-oriented, mixed-use residential development proposed by the Chevy Chase Land Company than a by-right development mimicking the existing strip mall and surface parking lots between Chevy Chase Lake Drive and Manor Road.

Berliner will also have to take a stance on proper phasing for the Plan. In her letter to County Council members last week, Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier wrote the two-step implementation process that would delay some development until after the Purple Line station is built was an “innovative staging framework.”

Residents on Wednesday disagreed with that assertion, calling the scope of proposed pre-Purple Line development (including zoning for a 55-foot-tall development at Newdale Mews) “ludicrous” and “contrary to prior precedent.”

“I don’t want to pre-judge how we will come out. I have walked your neighborhood. I have stood in the backyard of your neighborhood,” Berliner said. “I saw it. I understand it. It’s certainly on my radar.”

Also on Berliner’s radar is the fate of a site in the White Flint Mall redevelopment project that is supposed to be set aside for a new elementary school as part of the White Flint Sector Plan. That Plan could mean the addition of 14,000 housing units to North Bethesda and an influx of students to an already overcrowded school cluster.

But last October, the Planning Board and representatives from the Lerner family (which owns White Flint) argued over handling of the elementary school site. Lerner attorney Robert Brewer said it was unfair for the Planning Board to make the private company hand over the valuable land for free.

When asked about the issue by a PTA member on Wednesday, Berliner said the decision to make the Lerner family shoulder the entire burden of the elementary school site was unfair.

“Under the law we can not require one developer to dedicate that entire parcel unless we can demonstrate that it is that developer who is causing all the increase in school kids, which is patently not the case,” Berliner said. “This should have been all developers who’d be required to contribute to this. It’s the cumulative impact that causes the need for a school some years down the road.

“I don’t know if we can reopen that door,” Berliner said. “There’s no question in my mind we made a commitment to your community that there will be a school in the sector. I plan on fighting for that result one way or the other.”

Berliner also was asked about tree protection legislation. He is co-sponsoring a bill that would transfer responsibility for trees in the county right-of-way from the state to the county, thus giving the county authority on fees and restrictions to property owners who wish to cut down those trees.

One resident complained about negative environmental and quality of life effects from the loss of tree canopy in her neighborhood, where neighbors have steadily taken down trees in their lots to build housing additions.

The Council is also contemplating a tree canopy bill proposed by the executive branch that targets tree canopy loss on smaller lots.

“The difficulty is, it isn’t your land,” Berliner said. “The notion that the county would say either, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ or ‘You’ll have to pay,’ whether or not this passes I can’t tell you in this moment. These builders have incredible obligations to build lots of stormwater catchments. They argue they often have to take out trees in order to put in the stormwater that is necessary.”

A member of the Wood Acres Elementary School PTA asked about a potential delay to an addition to the school, to which Berliner said he was watching the progress of a number of capital projects, including the Bethesda Metro South Station entrance.

Leggett recommended delaying funding for that project for six months because of the uncertain future of the Purple Line, which is tied in to the entrance. Some transit advocates have argued the South Entrance should be built regardless of the status of the Purple Line.

Berliner said he doesn’t think the Maryland Public Service Commission will deny Pepco a requested rate hike like it did last year. Berliner and County Council colleagues are against the hike because of Pepco’s record of unreliable service.

“This year the governor’s endorsed [the rate hike request]. That makes a difference since the commission is appointed by the governor and they have a new chairman,” Berliner said. “We have an uphill fight.”


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